Would that I were in Juba to witness what one hopes is the end of the world’s longest running civil war, a war which now spans almost my entire career. It was a visit to Sudan in 1964 which led me into journalism, and taught me some valuable lessons about the problems of the media, and of newly independent Africa.
I had been a research student for a year at the University of Khartoum and got to know students from the south who told me in whispers about violent incidents in the region that had begun in 1963 and, they claimed, were destined to grow into full-scale revolt. The violence had gone unreported in the outside world. So I took the 10-day journey by paddle steamer up the Nile to Juba and spent 10 days in the city and Equatoria Province finding out more before going overland to Uganda. I wrote an article about the situation which impressed a diplomat acquaintance in Nairobi who urged me to send it — airmail in those days — to The Observer, a heavyweight British Sunday newspaper.
It got an enthusiastic response from the features editor, who said that most of its 3,000 words would soon be in print. But nothing appeared. On inquiring when I returned to London several weeks later I was told it had been vetoed by the paper’s chief Africa correspondent, a man with excellent connections to African independence leaders who did not believe the bad news I had brought from Sudan.
Eventually a small story was used by the paper’s syndication service. But the experience both made me want to be a journalist, and to beware as an editor of letting personal preconceptions get in the way of a good story.
By the time I was back in Juba in 1971, the Nile steamer no long ran and the road to Uganda was closed, but peace talks led to a new deal for the south which resulted in a few years of peace, but little progress, till war erupted again in the early 1980s.
In reality, it did not really matter what government was in power in Khartoum, whether it was the mild military rule of Gen. El Ferik Ibrahim Abboud in 1964, the democratic government that followed his overthrow, the quasi-socialist, then Islamist military rule of Gen. Gaafar al-Nimeiry in the 1970s and 80s, or the Islamist regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir that eventually followed him.
It was not so much a question of Muslims versus Christians and others, or even Arabic-speakers against others. Problems were exacerbated — but not created — by Islamist strictures. After all, back in 1964 Islamist intolerance was not an issue. Abu Jamal beer was brewed at the Blue Nile Brewery on the banks of the Nile in Khartoum, ordinary weddings saw vast consumption of the lethal local liquor, and red light districts were easily identified.
But the huge cultural gap was as evident, then as now, whether the issue was music or sexual mores. To it has been added the lure of oil.
So it will be to the very considerable credit of President Bashir, otherwise an unlikely source of good news, if he keeps his word and allows the south its freedom. But this is no reason to look for more break-ups of post-colonial states. Sudan is a special case because the gap between north and south is so wide.
The two regions were joined mainly as a result of the combination of Anglo-French rivalry for African territory and Britain’s need to accord nominal sovereignty over Sudan to the khedive of Egypt. For sure, Africa has many other tribal and religious divides that make governance very difficult. But none are as stark as Sudan or have led to such long periods of war and general misery.
The problems of creating a viable, peaceful state out of the south are many. The south lives in a dauntingly troubled neighborhood bordering the ravaged northwest of Uganda and adjacent areas of the Congo and Darfur. Its human resources are limited and tribal rivalries latent. But there is now at least a chance that the south will recover from decades of conflict, that the Nile steamer will run regularly, and that the road to Uganda and the more developed parts of east Africa will stay open.